The Prestige of Violence: American Fiction, 1962-2007.
by Sally Bachner
Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011. 172 pages
Roth and Trauma: The Problem of History in the Later Works (1995-2010)
by Aimee Pozorski
New York: Continuum, 2011. 175 pages
In their 2014 New Literary History essay "The Quiet Transformations of Literary Studies: What Thirteen Thousand Scholars Could Tell Us," Andrew Goldstone and Ted Underwood explore the question of what kinds of histories of literary criticism might emerge if instead of relying on the clash-of-ideas model to explain changes in the way we do what we do, we used the methods of computational humanities to track those changes. In this suggestive essay, they demonstrate the promise of this mode of inquiry to turn up the slower, longer, not publicly argued changes (and continuities) in assumptions and concerns that are often left out of the standard histories in favor of explanations focused on schools of thought or the influence of great men.
One of the examples Goldstone and Underwood cite is a chronological trend in the career of violence as a topic in literary studies, (1) which they argue "became much more prominent in literary-critical discourse over the course of the twentieth century. The frequency of the topic roughly triples between 1890 and 1980" (2014, 7). (2) On the causes of this trend, they are less certain. But they hazard a guess informed by their observation that the trend does not exist in print culture generally or in the work of historians: "Its reasonable to speculate that the rising importance of violent themes in twentieth-century scholarship reflects an underlying shift in the justification for literary study. Early-twentieth-century scholarship places a fair amount of emphasis on literature's aesthetically uplifting character.... As the century proceeds, that emphasis on aesthetic cultivation wanes, and appears to be replaced by a stance that one could characterize as ethical concern" (15). This explanation, Goldstone and Underwood convincingly argue, avoids the pitfalls of oversimplifying the history of literary criticism by overemphasizing particular schools or figures. As an example, they show how explanations based on Michel Foucault's influence seem to be invalidated by the fact that this trend did not noticeably increase during the time when his influence was most strongly felt.
But although Goldstone and Underwood note that the uptick of interest in violence cannot be explained by the fact that critics are increasingly writing about increasingly modern texts (because this is a trend in work about many periods), it is of course both a truism and true that violence becomes increasingly present in literary work as the century grows longer. The idea that this happens because life seems increasingly violent also seems sensible--despite Steven Pinker's tendentious, scientistic claims that the world has been growing less violent in the long and short term. (3) Nor, indeed, does one require computational methods to know that one of the less quiet transformations of literary studies over the past two or so decades has been the rise of trauma studies. Informed by Freud's early work on individual and structural trauma and born from a number of factors, including the growth of Holocaust studies and the recognition of posttraumatic stress disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, trauma studies itself, it could be argued, is another effect of the increasingly violent recent history of humanity. (4)
Two fine new books on contemporary American fiction--Sally Bachner's The Prestige of Violence and Aimee Pozorski's Roth and Trauma--are informed by and reflect on this phenomenon. Concerned respectively with the predominance of violence in post-1962 American novels and the focus on Americas historical traumas in the post-1995 novels of Philip Roth, these books ask why the novels that are their subjects emphasize trauma to the extent that they do. Their answers are different because their subjects are different, but both Bachner and Pozorski's books represent a latter stage in the life of trauma studies in literary criticism. While I can't tell from them whether the career of these ideas in English departments is waning or simply undergoing a slow shift, these books provide in their own ways evidence for the "ethical concern" cited by Goldstone and Underwood. In fact, the nature of that concern is at the heart of both the work of criticism and the work of fiction.
Sally Bachner's The Prestige of Violence has many important contributions to make, two of the largest being her argument concerning the popularity of violence as a subject in post-1962 fiction and her argument
concerning the popularity of trauma as a lens through which to see violence. While Bachner's sensitive and thoughtful readings of the work of individual writers (the sections on Roth and Don DeLillo especially come to mind) will have an impact on future scholarship, her attention to these two larger questions, one of which I have seldom seen raised, will outweigh those impacts. Why it is that we see so much violence in these novels is one of those questions that, once asked, makes you wonder why you haven't heard it asked before (or asked it yourself). Bachner's answer, in short, is prestige, a prestige awarded through cultural capital provided by American anxieties about the uneven distribution of violence in the world--the fact, that is, that the United States is surrounded by violence while experiencing relatively little of it itself--and about (in Bachner's words) "the suspicion that the violence and suffering that takes place elsewhere is the product of the very economic and political practices that guarantee US prosperity and security" (5). The books that seem the most serious and weighty in this context are the books that confront violence; violence bears the imprint of the real.
Bachner connects the prestige of violence to the rise of trauma studies through the way in which accounts of trauma construct the representation--or, rather, the unrepresentability--of violence. Trauma studies, in Bachner's account, too often emphasize the "unspeakability" of trauma--the overwhelming nature of the event too extreme to be processed through normal psychological channels, rendering it inaccessible and untransmittable to others. This emphasis allows violence to seem the most real thing, Bachner argues, while at the same time excusing writers, and Americans more broadly, from having to deal with the reality of violence, that is, with its causes and their implication in them.
It is important to note here that Bachner is quite aware of the implications of her argument on how we understand the writer's relationship to society--that is, she is aware that to discuss the way in which these novels display symptoms of a larger cultural malaise is to risk falling into a particular theoretical construction of artistic agency, or the lack thereof. Bachner sets her feet squarely in the middle between this model and ones that privilege authorial intention, drawing on Richard Slotkin's work in writing that her "goal is not to reduce literature to the status of the symptom, or the author to unconscious vector, but rather to recognize what Slotkm calls the 'reciprocity that characterizes the functional relation between cultural constructions and "material" experience'" (quoted in Bachner 19).The writers whose work she examines struggle actively with their material experience and with social codes about the meaning of violence and our ability to represent it; they fall victim to these codes as often as not, but they do so, the best of them, while trying to understand and represent the increasingly violent world around them, using tools they know to be both flawed and the only ones they've got.
Bachner's chapter on Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire follows a long and helpful introduction in which she lays out her claims and takes issue with a number of important writers--theorists of trauma such as Cathy Caruth, others who have focused on the unintelligibility of pain such as Elaine Scarry, and theorists of postmodernity such as Fredric Jameson--all of whom argue in one way and another against the ability of language to capture the violence of our present history. In the Nabokov chapter, she makes an argument that later chapters will follow, reading Pale Fire as registering violence (in this case, the historical violence of its protagonist and, of course, its author) but distancing itself from it by treating it as a joke. As with much of the fiction Bachner examines, Pale Fire testifies to the existence of violence at the same time as it argues for (by performing) the near impossibility of representing it.
In Bachner's reading, Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 demonstrates this conundrum even more fully. Reading the novel through Pynchon's 1966 New York Times Sunday Magazine article "A Journey into the Mind of Watts," Bachner connects Pynchon's account of the line between Los Angeles's white fantasy and the "bitter reality" of Watts to the disconnect between white America's fantasy and the war in Vietnam (quoted in Bachner 48). Putting aside the real connections between Cryings setting and the war--for example, the role defense contractors play in the book--Bachner argues (with plenty of close-reading evidence) that the novel focuses on the ways in which those who do not experience the reality of the violence can register it through imagination, at the level not of content but of form. Pynchon's refusal to have the novel mean, then, his choice to end the novel unconcluded, even his allegiance to the "high magic of low puns," can all be seen, paradoxically, as strategies for communicating the non-sense of violence (quoted in Bachner 71).
Bachner next turns to Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night and what seems like its explicit engagement with both the Vietnam War and American protests against it. She argues, however, that while both serve as sites around which the reality of violence can be interjected into Mailer's politics and writing, Mailer also focuses primarily on their distance and obscurity from everyday American experience. Connecting this claim to the central innovation of this novel/not-novel, Bachner cites Mailer s abdication of the role of historian for that of novelist ("the mystery of the events at the Pentagon can't be developed by the methods of the historian--only the instincts of the novelist") as evidence that the literary is being used to bring the distant experience of violence--the experience a novel can communicate and a history cannot--home to readers (85).
Bachner's fourth chapter takes off in a different direction, reading
Margaret Atwood's Surfacing and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time for the ways in which they represent (and fail to represent) "patriarchal violence" (26). Returning to the question of the unspeakability of violence, Bachner focuses on the paradox presented when feminist politics, which foreground the silencing of women from speaking about such things, intersect with representations of violence that imply its essential unspeakability. Through the lens of posttraumatic stress disorder, including controversies over its recognition, Bachner reflects on these authors' juxtaposition of violence against women and (returning again to Vietnam, so central a place in the national imaginary at this time and, arguably, still) the violence of the war. Putting the raped woman and the traumatized soldier together impels us to confront the different registers in which violence can be addressed--the moral and the medical, for starters--and further illuminates the question of how we represent what we sometimes call unrepresentable.
Bachner's fifth and sixth chapters take on Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, respectively, in ways that demonstrate a deep and wide-ranging familiarity with their works and the worlds out of (and into) which they wrote them, even if the readings do not always convince. Her reading of Roth takes in his entire career, identifying a common thread running from his early work's insistence on the distance between American Jews and the violence of Europe and his subsequent exploration of the cultural trauma created by such violence in the lives of American Jews. Her reading of The Plot against America goes cleverly against the grain of the book and Roth's career, reading the insertion of a counterfactual history as evidence of the centrality of cultural trauma to Jewish American identity, a position opposite to the one he held in previous novels. I admit to not being sure if I buy this: is it really "as if we are being asked to accept that this outlandish story of the Nazification of America is our true past and we have suppressed any real knowledge of it because it is too painful" (119)? And I am sure that I remain unconvinced by Walter Benn Michaels's critique of the novel, on which Bachner approvingly draws, for blinding readers to poverty through its focus on racism. (3)
As it was argued that The Plot against America was written in response to the early years of the second Bush's presidency (an argument steadfastly rejected by its author), so it has been argued that many novels and career turns took their shape from the events of September 11, 2001. Bachner's nuanced line on DeLillo is that 9/11 was less an opportunity for reconsideration of long-held beliefs than a confirmation of them and a new opportunity to demonstrate their usefulness. Reading Falling Manas a meditation on the limits of language to either represent or stave off violence, Bachner convincingly argues that DeLillo, a novelist concerned throughout his career not just with violence but with the paradoxical transcendence and complicity of language, uses a moment when it seemed that the violence familiar to the rest of the globe finally came to the United States to show just how spectatorial Americans' relationship with 9/11 really was, insisting that even at that moment Americans' trauma lay not so much in experiencing as in witnessing. Here, as throughout Bachner's study, the ethical aspect of how we speak of the violence we do to one another and the violence others do in our name emerges, contra Goldstone and Underwood (though using their essay as a bit of a straw man, I admit), Bachner shows how the aesthetic and ethical are inextricably intertwined.
If The Prestige of Violence might be cited as evidence of a shift in trauma studies' fortunes, laying out as it does the pitfalls of the approach when used by both critics and novelists, Aimee Pozorski's Roth and Trauma could be said to be a somewhat less reflective demonstration of trauma studies' limitations. Pozorski's book offers ample evidence of her thorough knowledge of Roth's oeuvre, his biography, and the critical conversation that has been building up around him. The book also displays a familiarity with trauma studies, from its foundational texts (such as Caruth s) to later applications (such as Michael Rothberg's, in Traumatic Realism ). What it demonstrates less successfully is the benefit of submitting Roth's famously irascible and interpretation-resistant novels (a quality admittedly seen by many critics to be on the wane in his later works) to the kind of pinning procedure that many applications of trauma studies want to perform.
Roth's later (and now, we know, last) novels are often seen as more historical than his earlier ones. Critics, happy to taxonomize, group the large bibliography into a series of stages: those concerned with Jewish American identity, those concerned with sexuality and infidelity, those concerned with the writer's life, and those concerned with America and national history. Of course, many of Roth's novels exist across these categories; in fact, I defy you to find many that don't cross all of them. This is a necessary error in this kind of exercise, one critics can usually recognize and ignore in order to do their work. Sometimes, however, these category errors introduce larger errors. The danger of seeing the later novels--particularly those belonging to what has come to be called the American Trilogy of American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000)--as newly historical, or newly historical in an American way, is that the historical concerns present in the earlier works get short shrift while those in the later works get overemphasized.
I think there is something of this at work in Roth and Trauma. Pozorski's insight that many of these works include allusions, such as American Pastoral's to Johnny Appleseed, that highlight a concern with a longer sweep of American history, back even to colonization and independence, is a useful one. Thinking of American history in terms of historical trauma, originary and repetitive, can be a useful exercise, one that critics (and novelists such as Tim O'Brien in In the Lake of the Woods) have undertaken. And Pozorski's efforts to read Roth's oeuvre from Sabbath's Theater (1995) to Nemesis (2010) through the idea of historical trauma do yield results, such as her tracing of the American Revolution through-line and the paying of closer attention to the Vietnam vet character in The Human Stain. But her cordoning off of these books as significantly different from earlier ones because of their attention to national history (when Roth's first book, in 1959, is called Goodbye, Columbus) and her insistence on reading this history through trauma result more often in readings that miss the nuances of Roth's politics. These politics are not only hard to pin down but are also deeply ambivalent--a fact that is also obscured in accounts of his career as describing an arc from 1960s countercultural values to 1990s conservatism.
In chapters on the American Trilogy and Roth's subsequent, shorter novels, Pozorski pays admirably close attention to the texts. I think Roth and Trauma could have benefited from similarly close, critical attention
to the texts of trauma studies. While Pozorski briefly acknowledges challenges to Caruth, Shoshana Felman, and other early theorists of trauma in her introductory first chapter, she unfairly reduces critics concerns to suspicions of deconstruction and armchair psychoanalysis by theorists (20-21). Roth and Trauma could have benefited greatly, in this regard, from closer attention to the work of Dominick LaCapra, whom Pozorski mentions only briefly in her introduction and nowhere else. In his Representing the Holocaust (1994), History and Memory after Auschwitz (1998), and especially History in Transit (2004), LaCapra thinks about how we understand and represent history, about the unspeakability claim at the heart of much work in trauma studies, and about the ways the medical narrative of trauma shapes the narratives we construct of our pasts.
Pozorski s sensitive readings of Roths work (and I do want to emphasize that sensitivity) notwithstanding, her desire to see this group of novels as different reinforces what I would argue is her flawed claim that these books see Roth move beyond being a Jewish American writer to being an American writer, one concerned with a larger American identity and history. She is not the first to make this claim, but it is a claim that belies the inseparability of Jewishness and Americanness in Roth's work he, or Zuckerman, or any number of other writers and characters, are Jews, and Americans, and writers, and to write about one is to write about the other ones. Even more important, perhaps, assertions of a clear-cut transition belie the ambiguity and ambivalence at the heart of Roth's method throughout his career. There are no rebellions, let alone loyalties, that are not ironized in Roth's novels, except maybe the modernist insistence on there being no rebellions or loyalties that cannot be ironized.
If the insights of trauma studies are to have continued and useful life in literary criticism, it will be because they are applied reflectively, with close, even ethical concern for the ramifications of what we say about the nature of violence, the limitations and possibilities of language, and the persistent claims of the aesthetic. If that continuing life also depends on the continuing growth of violence in our century, I unfortunately have good news for trauma studies, especially if it is able to expand its concerns from the violence of war and oppression to include what Rob Nixon has called the "slow violence" of environmental degradation (2013). Most important (and more within our control), if literary critics are able to combine their ethical commitments with a Rothian sense of irony, they may still be able to see new things through the lens of trauma, as long as they also keep their eyes on the flaws in the lens.
Caruth, Cathy. 1995. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Cohen, Samuel. 2009. After the End of History: American Fiction in the 1990s. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.
Corry, Stephen. 2013. "The Case of the 'Brutal Savage': Poirot or Clouseau? Why Steven Pinker, Like Jared Diamond, Is Wrong." Survival International, assets.survivalinternational.org/documents/1081/corry -on-pinker.pdf.
Goldstone, Andrew, and Ted Underwood. 2014. "The Quiet Transformations of Literary Studies: What Thirteen Thousand Scholars Could Tell Us." New Literary History 45, no. 43, hdl.handle.net/2142/49323.
Kolbert, Elizabeth. 2011. "Peace In Our Time: Steven Pinker's History of Violence in Decline." New Yorker, October 3, www.newyorker.com /arts/critics/books/2011/10/03/111003crbo_books_kolbertOctober.
LaCapra, Dominick. 1994. Representing the Holocaust. Ithaca: Cornell University.
--. 1998. History and Memory after Auschwitz. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
--. 2004. History in Transit. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Michaels, Walter Benn. 2006. "Plots against America: Neoliberalism and Antiracism." American Literary History 18, no. 2: 288-302.
Nixon, Rob. 2013. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking.
Rothberg, Michael. 2000. Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
--. 2006. "Against Zero-Sum Logic: A Response to Walter Benn
Michaels." American Literary History 18, no. 2: 303-11.
(1.) "Violence" is the shorthand Goldstone and Underwood use for Topic 80, which is the cluster of the words "violence," "power," and "fear" (2014, 5).
(2.) They arrive at this conclusion through their use of something called the Latent Dirichlet Allocation algorithm, of which they say they are using one of the simplest versions (Goldstone and Underwood 2014, 9nl0). We will take their word for this, Alan Sokal be damned.
(3.) For two of many critical takes on Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, see Corry 2013 and Kolbert 2011.
(4.) It has also been argued (by me) that trauma theory's emergence owes something to the end of the Cold War (Cohen 2009,129-30).
(5.) For more on Michaels's critique, see Rothberg 2006.
(6.) One final note on Roth and Trauma that needs mentioning: the pages of this book display a distressing number of errors of the kind that copyediting should have caught and an equally distressing number of errors a proofreader ought to have corrected. In addition, the index is only two pages long and includes no entries for "Roth, Philip," or for any of the many books he has written. None of this helps the author present what is in many places a fine book to its best advantage.
Samuel Cohen is associate professor of English at the University of Missouri. He is the author of After the End of History: American Fiction in the 1990s and coeditor (with Lee Konstantinou) o/The Legacy of David Foster Wallace. He is also series editor of the New American Canon: The Iowa Series in Contemporary Literature and Culture, coeditor of JMMLA, and author of Fifty Essays: A Portable Anthology and Literature: The Human Experience.
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|Title Annotation:||Roth and Trauma: The Problem of History in the Later Works (1995-2010)|
|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2015|
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